Your Kingdom Come: God’s Patience and Ours in Light of Eternity

We pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” We strive to live in the reality of Christ’s saving work, doing good works, loving our neighbors, and spreading the good news. And yet every day another news story: Abortion legalized up to delivery, racist behavior defended, people fleeing genocide, sexual abuse exposed even in the church. The kingdom feels no closer. I don’t know about you, but I feel weary. How long will God allow this to continue?

God is playing the long game, much longer than we can comprehend. He is doing a work forged before time—or rather, before time was a concept. Peter reveals this work: He writes to believers to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15a).

(Keep a tab open to 2 Peter 3:8-15. This post will refer to it frequently.)

Patience is a divine attribute. God does not rise to the standard of patience; rather, patience is virtuous because it is how God relates to time. The eternal God is neither constrained by time (2 Peter 3:8) nor fears its ticking minutes. But we are dust. The passage of time weighs heavily on us humans. Thirty seconds to microwave her lunch is agony to my toddler. As beings created within time and cursed at the Fall, the eternal perspective of God comes unnaturally to us. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in us when we exercise patience, holding loosely to this life. We cannot be eternal as God is, but we trust that the eternal God is at work for our good (Romans 8:28).

God at work in Habakkuk

Habakkuk felt the strain of enduring while sin appeared to reign. He looked around at Judah and saw destruction, violence, perverted justice, and the wicked oppressing the righteous (Hab. 1:2-4). “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Hab. 1:2).

God responded that he was doing a work: first a work of repentance among his people through the judgment of Babylon’s invasion (Hab. 1:6); and then—much later—a work of damnation upon evil Babylon for their crimes. Habakkuk would not live to see Babylon’s demise, but God told him to be patient: “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to its end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3).

Slowness is a human perception of time. Slowness feels each second building into minutes, the minutes into years, and the years stretching into a lifetime. The Bible instructs us to replace this perception of slowness with patience: If it seems slow, wait for it.

God at work in redemptive history

Peter contrasts these divine and human perspectives on time: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you…that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). What we perceive as slowness is a work in progress. God is calling all those he has predestined (Romans 8:30), and his patience will endure until the last lost sheep is brought into the fold.

But God’s patience does end.  

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief … and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10). Those who mistake God’s patience for permission are condemned by the very time offered to them in kindness. Each hour they do not repent, they are “storing up wrath for [themselves]” (Romans 2:5). Like he did in the days of Habakkuk, the Lord is doing a double work: First of repentance, then of damnation. Mercy, then justice.

God has endured the presence of sin in his once-perfect creation since the Fall in order to complete this foreordained work: To send a Savior to redeem from their sins a people for himself. Thousands of years stretched from the first promise that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15) to the advent of the Messiah; two thousand more years have passed since Jesus promised to return soon to enact his kingdom (Revelation 22:20); and a million more years may pass, or Jesus may return before you finish reading.

In any case, we are assured that God is at work, calling every one of his people to repentance; that he will not delay his justice against wickedness a moment longer than he has appointed; and that when he is done, the redeemed will live in “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

But we are human. It feels slow. In addition to praying for the Spirit’s fruit of patience, what can we do while we wait?

Our work in the present age

We may lament. The Christian life is not one of aggressive cheerfulness in the face of pain and sorrow. Creation groans at the brokenness of a world marred by sin, and so may we (Romans 8:22-23). One model for lament is the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11. As those who have died in Christ, these (literal or representative) souls have been sanctified, so their lament is pure.

They cry: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). This lament first recognizes God’s sovereignty and his character, then pleads for the Lord to act in a way consistent with his character.

We must also live by faith. The Lord told Habakkuk, “Behold, [the wicked’s] soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4). This faith includes believing that God’s justice will prevail, as well as trusting in his promise to save his people and establish his kingdom.

Peter elaborates on how we should live as people of faith: “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14). Earlier he calls believers to “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (from 2 Peter 3:11-12). We pray, “Your kingdom come,” and we have the opportunity to hasten that work. We do so by enacting God’s will on earth, living holy and godly lives as well as seeking out the redeemed by calling others to repentance.

There’s a potential pitfall here: To be so reassured by God’s eternal justice that we forsake the pursuit of justice on earth. Just the opposite—because we know the kingdom is coming, our desire for holiness and godliness should motivate us to seek the will of God on earth, including pursuing justice and opposing oppression (Isaiah 1:16-17; 58:6-7; Obadiah 1:10-11; James 1:27; 2:14-16).

After reading this, you’ll likely see some new report of corrupt politics, violence, or abuse. Feel free to lament that sin taints everything we see, but also remember to rejoice that God is sovereignly working out his plan to overthrow evil and establish his kingdom, where righteousness dwells.

Photo credit

God Is in the Fish

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Yesterday I cried at a kids’ song. We were in the car going to visit my parents, and somewhere along Route 519, this song that I’ve heard a dozen times overwhelmed me.

The song was “Nothing Much in Tarshish” from the album Why Not Sea Monsters?: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures by Justin Roberts, a collection of charming and inventive, if not always strictly accurate, musical retellings of Bible stories. This one recounts the story of Jonah, the Israelite prophet, who “on the way to Tarshish, got swallowed by a large fish.” Roberts sings that

God is in the fish
It all comes down to this
It’s so dark, dark, dark
It’s so cold, cold, cold
But there’s more love, love, love
Than you can hold, hold, hold, hold

There’s so much biblical truth compressed into these lines. Jonah was indeed in the dark and cold. When Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish, he described the waves closing over him like bars and (particularly revolting to me) seaweed wrapping around his head (Jonah 2:5). Beyond this literal darkness, Jonah was in the darkness of his own sin and outright rebellion against God. God had sent Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh, but Jonah instead took a ship to Tarshish. He intended to flee “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3). For those like me without a strong grasp on ancient geography, here’s a useful map. Tarshish is in Spain, much further away from Jonah’s home than Nineveh, in the opposite direction, across the entire Mediterranean Sea. Had Jonah followed God’s command, he wouldn’t even have been on the sea, but now due to his sin he was trapped beneath it.

It is out of this drowning darkness that God rescued Jonah into the belly of the fish. Jonah prayed, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:7-8). Jonah recognized that he had not successfully fled God’s presence; God was at work in the storm, in the sea, and in the fish. God pursued Jonah through his rebellion. Jonah described this relentless pursuit as “steadfast love.” This is God’s covenant love at work!

Now, the fish, arguably, was still dark. We’re told Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights before he prayed (Jonah 1:17). Like Jonah, we can be stubborn, stiff-necked people. We may suffer under God’s discipline for a time, but as the song says, “God is in the fish!” His purpose is always to pursue his people with covenant love, to bring us to repentance, and to show us that he is our only salvation. It took three days in the dark, but Jonah learned: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).

Jonah was not the only one in the dark in this story. Roberts sings about “lonely Nineveh.” “Lonely” is not the word Jonah would have used to describe the thriving capital city of the brutal Assyrian empire. He might have used “wicked” or “godless” or “irredeemable.” God described them differently. “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11). The city was utterly ignorant of God—true darkness indeed. Jonah hated them for their wickedness, but God pitied them. God had no covenant relationship with Nineveh, no reason to offer them repentance. Sin doesn’t deserve a second chance; God could have rained brimstone on Nineveh and remained just. But in his infinite mercy, he sent Jonah, and, after the least inspiring sermon ever, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5), and God relented.

The book of Jonah foretells the vast scope of Christ’s work on the cross. It reaches the ignorant and pitiable, the backsliding and hypocritical, the rebellious and hateful. It reaches those that God has no business saving.

This is why I cried as the fence posts passed by on Route 519. God loved Jonah in his sin with relentless, pursuing covenant love. God loved Nineveh in their utterly lost state with mercy even for those who were not yet his people. If God can love Jonah, and God can love Nineveh, God can certainly love me and you.

What a beautiful truth to sing to our children and to our own hearts—that we will sin, and run away from God, and God will discipline us, but God is in the fish. His steadfast love pursues us through the dark.

Photo credit: Justin Roberts

The Minor Prophets: Not So Scary

anonymous (2016), public domain

“Let’s read the minor prophets,” said Zack. “Neither of us have.”

I did not want to read the prophets. Four hundred pages of “You broke the covenant, now wham! Terrible judgment is coming.” But Zack prevailed (I didn’t have much of a case to skip an entire genre of Scripture). We didn’t set out to do a detailed study, just to know what was written.

As we read through Hosea, the first minor prophet, I found a lens through which to read the rest of the prophets: God’s wrath is so great because his love is so great.

Hosea is best known for the love story between Hosea and Gomer. Did you know that the whole encounter is only the first three out of 14 chapters? I didn’t.

The book illustrates God’s great love for his people through several metaphors, beginning with the marriage of Hosea to the adulterous Gomer to symbolize God’s faithful love to faithless Israel, who were mixing pagan religion into the worship of the one true God. God goes on to call to Israel as a loving parent to his son (Hosea 11:1), a master tenderly hand-feeding his livestock (Hosea 11:4), and a farmer nurturing his plants (Hosea 9:10; 14:5).

The Lord through Hosea describes how he had pursued Israel before resorting to the dire judgment found in Hosea’s prophesies:

For she said, “I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” … And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hosea 2:5b, 8)

Can you hear the aching grief of a scorned lover? Even as Israel pursued false gods, the Lord had mercy—instead of raining down the covenant curses Israel deserved, he lavished love on them—and Israel attributed their comfort to the pagan fertility gods. Hosea recounts that “The more [Israel’s] fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars,” and while for a time God had mercifully withheld judgment, “now they must bear their guilt” (from Hosea 10:1-2).

The story of Hosea and Gomer is followed by seven chapters enumerating Israel’s sins and describing the judgment to come, coming to a devastating crescendo of utter desolation:

Therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil. At dawn the king of Israel shall be utterly cut off. (Hosea 10:14-15)

And then, in the very next verse, it’s as if the Lord of the universe’s voice breaks with grief. “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” he says, “and out of Egypt I called my son. … Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:1, 3). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob laments that after centuries of covenant relationship, it has come to this. He has wooed Israel as a lover, nurtured and raised them as a parent, and now he must discipline them as their God. Chapters 12 and 13 lay out Israel’s further sin and due judgment, and it is ugly and bloody and sad.

The book of Hosea concludes with an impassioned call to even now return to the Lord. He takes no delight in destroying his beloved (see Hosea 11:8) but desires to restore Israel to covenant relationship with himself. “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them,” the Lord promises. The heat of God’s anger is exactly equal to the fire of his love. If he loved his people less, their unfaithfulness to him would be less offensive. But his love is fierce, and thus so is his discipline.

Were God a human, we would label these swings from judgment to compassion capricious, even vindictive. But God reminds us that “I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). God is not lashing out at Israel in a rage; he is pursuing a relationship with his people, first through mercy, and now through discipline (Hosea 5:2; 7:12; 10:10).

Our Lord still pursues a relationship with his people, no longer through prophets but now through his Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:1). In Jesus’ perfect life on earth, we see what a life of covenant faithfulness would look like–and how short we fall in comparison. In Jesus’ death on our behalf, we see all the curses, all the divine wrath described in the prophets, that our sin still deserves. Under the new covenant we see God’s justice and his love united at the cross, as the wrath of God is poured out, not on us, the unfaithful ones, but on Jesus, God’s own son. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that we, the faithless ones, could be called the bride of Christ, and we, the ungrateful children, could be called the sons of God.

Zack and I are still working through the minor prophets. I’m still pretty intimidated by them. We often lean on our study Bible notes for historical context and interpretive support. There is a lot of judgment—but also a lot else: persistent faithfulness, deep mercy, and relentless love.